Cowboys And Indians
Shyam watched surreptitiously as Khushi drank her tea mechanically with a stunned look on her face. He decided to rub it in a little more, give her the extra push she needed.
‘You know, Naniji likes you a lot. She always wanted someone like you for her Chotey. Rani Sahiba too. But Saaley Saab .. well .. Naniji threatened to disown him if he didn’t marry soon. So ..’ He leaned forward, all the better to inhale that intoxicating perfume of hers, his hand still clasping hers.
‘I’m sorry, Khushiji, but, you should know the truth of the family you’re marrying into. Nobody will tell you all this. The only reason I did is because ... ‘ and this was the tricky part. ‘I, too, am an outsider in the family. Nobody told me about all this, until it was too late.’ He sighed, his eyes filling with tears as he looked into hers.
She looked at him, her eyes wide, unseeing, before looking down at his hand clasping hers. Slowly she tugged it away. ‘Can we go home now, please?’ she said in a very small voice.
Khushi sat quietly in the car, all the way home.
He could see the gears turning in her head. He smirked. His work was almost done. No way would Khushi marry a gold-digger and playboy like Arnav, he thought. She was far too good for him. He almost believed the tale that he’d told her, himself! But then, he wasn’t a lawyer and a good one at that, for nothing. Words were his tools of trade, and boy did he need to use them now! He dropped her off at her home, and then drove away, whistling to himself, Daiyya ho!
Khushi dropped her bag in the bedroom, and went to the kitchen. Pretty soon, the fragrant smell of jalebis frying wafted into the air. Nobody was at home, and she was all alone with her thoughts and doubts and dismay.
As usual, when Khushi’s mind was in a frenzy, so were her hands. All that she’d heard from Shyam today was distilling down into a few mere words.
‘He wants a prenup.’ .. ‘Arnav gets his inheritance’ ... ‘if he marries by twenty-eight’ ... ‘disowned’ ...‘Once he has his inheritance, if he wants to ‘ .. ‘before marriage’ ... ‘after divorce’ ... ‘prenup’ ... ‘divorce’ ... ‘inheritance’ ... ‘disown’ ... ‘prenup’ ...
The words echoed and reverberated inside her mind jumbling together, like the echoes in a Hindi film, complete with a black and white montage. Tears stood at the corner of her eyes but she refused to let them fall. Khushi Kumari Gupta was mad. She was boiling mad.
Laad Governor. Is that what he thinks he can do? Marry me and get his inheritance? It’s a pity he wasn’t here, she thought, ‘cause if he were, she would squeeze him through that tiny funnel, into that boiling hot oil, and fry him till he was golden brown. Like his eyes. No, no, Khushi, you can’t think about his eyes, now. You’re mad at him. And then I would gobble him up. She shook her head. Focus, Khushi... and poured more batter into the cloth. So he thinks, he can marry me, and then leave me for those .. those chudails? Like the ones in the photos? Heck no, he wouldn’t get the chance. A prenup, huh? Prenup? Ready for divorce before marriage? Rakshas! That’s what he was! Prepared for anything now, was he? I’ll give him a prenup, she thought. He can have his precious prenup and see how he likes it! She lifted out the jalebi from the pan and saw she’d made the word ‘Arnav’ from the batter! That was it!
She turned off the gas, marched into the bedroom and dialed.
Arnav was still driving home, when his phone rang. Khushi. Thank God. He picked up the phone. ‘Khushi, tum theek ho?’ he asked tenderly.
‘So you want a prenup?’ were the first words he heard, trembling with anger.
He sat up straight. ‘What?’
‘I said, you want a prenup? You can have it, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada. After all, what else can you expect from a gold-digger, right? And in any case you’re a fine one to be calling me a gold digger! You’re no better yourself,’ her voice was now raised. She bit into the ‘A’ of the Arnav jalebi.
‘How dare you ask me for a prenup, Arnavji. How DARE you?! It’s all fun and games to you, isn’t it? A prenup?’ she was crying now. ‘So that you can have your fun and games with those... those.. bitches?’ She was chomping on the ‘rna’ of ‘rnav’ now..
‘Wha-? How do you know that word?’
She swallowed the jalebi in her mouth and yelled, ‘I work for you, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada. Obviously, I know what that word means. And yes, if you think I’m going to make it easy for you, you’re sadly mistaken.’
‘Khushi, what the hell?-’ He was mad now because she wouldn’t listen to him. ‘How dare you?’
‘Oh I can do more than dare, Laad Governor,’ before biting decisively into the ‘v’ left of poor Arnav!
‘Just shut up, Khushi!’ he’d reached the end of his tether, and yelled back at her.
‘No, you shut up,’ she bawled into the phone. ‘I don’t want to see your face nor do I want to talk to you!’ And with that she hung up and turned off the phone.
He dragged his bluetooth from his ear and flung it onto the dashboard, slapping his hand against the wheel, a nerve jumping at his temple.
‘Bhai?’ Akash was looking really scared now, but that was more due to the way his brother was driving than at the look of pure anger on his face.
‘She wants a prenup? She’ll get a bloody prenup,’ he gritted.
‘Bhai, what happened? Prenup?’ Akash was now equally concerned.
Arnav drew a few deep breaths before saying, ‘Khushi wants a prenup.’
‘What?’ Akash blinked. He thought for a minute and shook his head. ‘Bhai, why would she want a prenup? Wouldn’t she be at the losing end if she did so?’
Sometimes Arnav wondered where Akash’s brains were. But then, at times like these, he was stunned at the cold logic that his younger brother could come up with. He smiled wolfishly and said, ‘I love you, Akash,’ before driving home in a marginally better state of mind, much to his brother’s relief.
He picked up the phone and dialed her number. Her phone was turned off.
She wiped her tears and went back to the kitchen. Placing a small stack of jalebis on a plate she took it into the bedroom, sitting in front of her statue of Devi Mayya and sorrowfully biting into the sweet delight.
This was the sight that greeted Payal as she walked in.
‘Khushi?!’ she exclaimed. ‘What happened?’ She shook her sister’s shoulder, and Khushi jumped at the touch.
‘Nothing, Jiji,’ said Khushi, numbly eating another jalebi.
‘Do you want some tea, Khushi?’ Payal asked. She was rewarded with a nod.
She brought the tea out to her younger sister, and both sat in silence for a while sipping. Finally, she broached the topic.
‘What’s going on, Khushi? Why were you frying jalebis? Is something troubling you?’
Khushi looked at her older sister before finally letting go of her fears and her anger and her sorrow. She started crying again. Payal hugged her younger sister, as she wailed on her shoulder. It took a while and a lot of soothing murmurs, before Khushi had calmed down to a few hiccups and straightened up.
‘Go wash your face,’ said Payal, gently cupping her face, ‘then come and tell me what this is all about.’
A much calmer Khushi came out and the two sisters sat on the bed facing each other. She still hiccuped occasionally, but finally managed to tell Payal about her tete-a-tete with Shyam. She was lying with her head on a pillow in her sister’s lap by the time she was finished.
The older girl sat stroking her sister’s hair as she listened. ‘Khushi, all this talk about inheritance. I don’t think it’s true.’
‘But the same thing happened to Salmanji in ‘Jab Pyaar Kissise Hota Hai’ and also in ‘Janam Samjha Karo’. He was going to be disowned if he didn’t get married. Bade bade ghar mein aise chotey chotey baatein hote hain,’ she misquoted.
‘Paagal,’ said Payal unable to keep from smiling. She gave her sister a hug, and smoothed back her hair. ‘Those are movies, written by people and made up stories. This is Arnavji we’re talking about.’
‘And all this you heard from Shyamji?’ Payal asked.
‘Khushi, how long have you known Arnavji?’
‘A long time,’ in muffled tones.
‘Do you love him?’
Nod. Vigorous nod.
‘And how long have you known Shyamji?’
Khushi opened her mouth to respond and all of a sudden in her mind’s eye, all the reasons why she’d felt uncomfortable around Shyam came crashing back into her memory. She felt her face flush.
‘Just a few days,’ she muttered.
‘And Arnavji?’ Payal shook her head, and stroked Khushi’s hair. Without waiting for an answer, she asked, ‘Do you trust Arnavji?’
Khushi turned over and looked into her eyes. This was a question that she would have to answer for herself. She thought long and she thought hard and then said, ‘I made a mistake, didn’t I?’ Her eyes were large, innocent and so full of confusion.
Payal nodded sadly.
‘I should call him,’ she started looking around for her phone.
‘No, Khushi. You have to talk to him face to face about this. You can’t hide behind a phone. Besides its getting late. Go to sleep,’ she said, kissing her sister on the forehead.
Khushi lay down, tired in the aftermath of the emotional storm that she’d been through. Soon she was breathing deeply and evenly in dreamless slumber. But not before she mumbled, ‘I have to tell you something more about Shyamji.’
Arnav dialed Khushi’s number and it rang before it went to voicemail. He dialed again and again and each time it was the same. She wasn’t answering the phone he realized, but then dialed again, just in case. Voicemail. And she hadn’t even set up a proper outgoing message, so he could have at least listened to her voice before leaving her a message.
He was pacing in his room, restless as a panther before feeding time in a zoo. He waited five minutes, five agonizing, anguished minutes before dialing again. No luck. Finally, he threw it disgustedly on his bed. He didn’t stop pacing though, and even his beloved plants couldn’t help him today. He needed to talk to Khushi and clear this stupid business out. What the heck?!
She’d been crying. Of course, she would cry. He would have laughed at that, except he knew she was hurting and he couldn’t go to her, gather her in his arms and kiss her red little nose and tell her that it was all a big misunderstanding. She was so cute, but so crazy and she drove him up a wall. Though he’d rather be up that said wall, than live his life the way he did before she came into it, with her glitter and her antics and her wide smile. Dammit! He had to resolve this.
He had to let her know that he hadn’t even thought about a prenup and there was no way he was going to let her go. Ever. Period. She was his. For this life and the next however many lives they were accorded together.
The phone buzzing interrupted his thoughts. Khushi. Relief brought returning anger with it. He hit the ignore button. Let her call.
Payal picked up Khushi’s phone and saw 10 missed calls! Okay. So he was at least trying to call her. She tried his number from Khushi’s phone. It was ringing but he was not answering. She scowled in annoyance. What’s with these two? she thought. She tried again and this time the call was cut. One more try. Ugh!! These two are like children. First she yells at him, then he is mad at her. How the heck did they ever manage to fall in love and actually confess their feelings to each other? she had no clue. But this couldn’t go on. She tried once more.
Half an hour of incessant pacing and ignoring the phone’s annoying buzzing later, he heard a knock on his door. He opened it. Akash was standing there with a grim look on his face.
He slammed the phone he held onto Arnav’s chest. ‘Payal. Talk to her,’ he bit out.
Arnav raised an eye brow and the phone to his ear.
‘Arnavji, what’s the point of having phone if you won’t answer it? I’ve been trying it for the past half hour,’ she accused.
‘Er.. ,’ he turned away from the door. Akash came and stood inside, arms folded, eyebrows raised.
‘How’s Khushi?’ Arnav asked, in a softer, gentler tone. He knew how ferocious Payal could be about her younger sister. He wasn’t picking another quarrel with her.
‘She’s fallen asleep. You both need to talk. Pick her up at 8:30 tomorrow,’ she said.
‘What? but Payal, what happened?’
‘I think she needs to tell you herself,’ said Payal, before she hung up.
Arnav looked at the phone. Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough for him. He handed the phone back to Akash who looked at him with a measured glance. He got a sheepish look back in return.
Attagirl, Payal! Akash thought. The Gupta sisters certainly knew how to tame the Raizada lion! Correction - Raizada lions! in the plural, preening to himself.
At eight thirty a.m. sharp Arnav picked up Khushi right from in front of her house.
He drove to a hillside, one that he sometimes passed on his way and parked. There was a calmness to their companionship today, he thought. It was almost like the morning after sex - all passion and heat and intensity the night before, then the exhausted sleep. All peace and calm the morning after. His lips twitched at the analogy, but he dared not smile.
They’d barely spoken to each other so far, and he wanted to hear from her exactly what had caused that huge meltdown the night before.
She was subdued today and the dark blue color of her salwar heightened the paleness of her skin, contrasting with the deep black of her hair that she’d left loose. He thought she had never looked more beautiful. He, on the other hand, was in a white shirt, and casual black jeans, his aviators snugly on his nose, for once foregoing the hair gel to allow his hair to flop onto his forehead.
They sat on a grassy mound in silence, looking out at the scenery before them, the lush green foliage, the rolling hills and a temple of Devi Mayya visible in the distance. It was quiet and peaceful up here.
He glanced at her woebegone face and put an arm around her. ‘Are you going to tell me what happened?’ he nuzzled her cheek.
She sighed and looked at him, her grey-green eyes full of guilt and remorse, his caramel ones only held love. He kissed her softly and said, ‘tell me.’
She told him hesitantly all that Shyam had told her. The mammoth web of lies that he had spun around the two of them. There in the shade of a mango tree, she spewed it all out, leaving nothing out - including her increased distaste for his brother-in-law.
Arnav listened in silence, interrupting her only to clear up something that he didn’t understand. This was too bizarre! Yet knowing Khushi, he knew it couldn’t be anything but true.
She was in tears by the time she finished, but these were quiet ones, not the heart-wrenching ones of last night. These were of a pain that was felt, but now was shared.
‘Sh... Sh.. It’s okay.. ‘ He kissed her on the forehead, his hands cradling her head, a long, slow kiss as the bells in the temple of Devi Mayya rang out. ‘It’s all okay, Khushi,’ he said. ‘We’re together, that’s what matters.’
They sat there together for a while, arms around each other, just drinking in the peace.
But Arnav’s mind was nowhere at peace. His brother-in-law, his own brother-in-law whom he looked up to, had given his sister’s hand to, the brother-in-law who claimed to look after his interests, was the one who was .. his thoughts stopped right there. He’d fed monstrous lies and tall tales to his sweet Khushi and hurt her. And he was cheating - what else would you call it? - on his sister.
He couldn’t confront him now, nor could he tell his sister. How? How on earth was he supposed to deal with this? And he wasn’t letting Khushi go either. Questions - whys? whats? wherefores? swirled around in his head, as he held on to the woman he loved.
He untangled himself and walked away, unable to meet the implicit trust in her eyes. He made a phone call. Then he came back and helped her up, and led her back to the SUV.
He pulled over near a dhaba, and she looked at him, surprised. She definitely hadn’t expected him to come with her to a dhaba, ever! Arnav Singh Raizada did not do dhabas. But here he was pulling over at one on the highway - without her asking him to!
‘Dhaba, Arnavji?’ she asked hesitantly.
He nodded. ‘No one will think of me being at a dhaba. It’s the safest place for us,’ he said, quietly.
As Khushi exited the car, she was surprised to see her sister waiting with Akash near another car.
The four of them sat down on charpoys and ordered food.
Arnav broke the silence. ‘Payal, Thanks for last night.’
She looked at him startled, the innuendo not lost on her or Akash.
‘Bhai?’ Akash was confused.
‘I meant, thanks for telling me to talk to Khushi,’ he said.
‘Did you both talk?’ Payal asked.
‘Yes, jiji,’ Khushi said. ‘I told him everything.’
Arnav held her hand and kissed her knuckles, looking deep into her eyes.
Payal looked at Akash. See? That’s how you do romance, her eyes said.
He looked at her, narrowed his eyes and then dropped his gaze to her lips. She flushed, biting her lips. He smirked as he looked right back into her eyes. She held his gaze, as her lips parted, her breathing getting erratic.
Arnav and Khushi stared at them open mouthed.
‘Will you two stop ogling each other and get back to the problem in hand?’ Arnav finally asked disgusted with the blatant eye-sex going on in front of them. Ugh! The things that poor Khushi was exposed to. He wanted to cover her innocent eyes before they went any further.
Payal and Akash straightened up, cleared their throats and looked at him.
‘So.’ Akash opened the discussion. ‘Jeejaji told you, that you should get a prenup. And he told you, Khushi, that Bhai wants a prenup?’ Akash summed it up in one question.
‘Weird,’ he stroked his chin. ‘Why would Jeejaji do that?’
‘That’s not all, Akash. If you look at everything that’s happened in the past few days, it’s Jeejaji who’s behind everything. He wants to break me and Khushi up.’ Arnav shook his head baffled by this conclusion. It made no sense to him, or to the others.
‘But why?’ said Payal. ‘What does he stand to gain from this?’
Khushi shuddered. ‘I hate how he always tries to get close to me, and ... and .. touch me,’ she whispered. All three of them looked at her, horror dawning on their faces. ‘He gave me a ride to work two days, came by one day, and then took me out for tea yesterday,’ she said. Innocent as she was, she was not unaware that she wasn’t ‘bumping’ into Shyam by accident. There was something more behind it.
‘He wants Khushi?’ Payal’s voice came out strangled.
The four of them sat silently, digesting that very indigestible idea.
‘How was he hoping to accomplish this?’ Akash’s brain was working on overtime now. ‘If you and Khushi broke up,’ Arnav glared at him. ‘Hypothetically, Bhai,’ he said placatingly, ‘even if you and Khushi broke up, how on earth was he going to get at her? The man hasn’t thought this through, has he? Did he honestly think that Khushi would go running to him, a man that was married to the sister of the man she loves? And even if she did that, what was he going to do, divorce Di and marry Khushi?’
Payal looked at him in astonishment. It was true! There was no way, that Shyam would have Khushi in his life.
Arnav smirked. His brother was right. Shyam wasn’t really thinking it all through very well, was he?
‘In any case. What about Di, Bhai?’ Akash continued. ‘What do we tell her? Or do we tell her anything at all?’
‘And what about Khushi, Akash?’ Payal pointed out. ‘How do you think she could get married into a family, knowing the dammed damaad was looking at her like that? How could she be safe?’
Arnav looked at Payal and said grimly, ‘Khushi and I are getting married, Payal. Make no mistake about that.’
‘We can’t tell Di,’ Khushi spoke quietly. ‘Think how hurt she will be.’ Her tender heart hurt for her sister-in-law-to-be. Her eyes glistened with tears.
Arnav reached out and held her hand. He sat silently, his jaws clenched. The two most important women in his life - both being held at emotional gunpoint by one man. He didn’t want to have to choose. He wanted to save them both. He needed to save them both.
‘But Di has to know at some point, Khushi. We can’t not tell her,’ he said.
‘Not before the weddings,’ Akash said simply. ‘How can we have a wedding knowing that Di is suffering?’
Payal looked at him. Shyam trying to break Arnav and Khushi up would have repercussions even on her! This was not tolerable! But what Akash said was true. They couldn’t start their own lives knowing that Di’s was broken.
There had to be a way to show Shyam that Khushi was out of his reach - but without hurting Di. And there was only one way to do that.